Will changing NAFTA force Mexicans to move to U.S.?

MEXICO CITY — Jesus Velasquez doesn't want to move to the United States. He fears, however, that he may have to if he loses his job selling avocados. Velasquez, 36, says he and his family have benefited from the North American Free Trade Agreement. For him, the alternative is to emigrate to the United States.

"The trade act is good because we have jobs," he said Sunday, speaking loudly over the clamor of hundreds of workers hauling fruits and vegetables off rumbling trucks. "If there are no jobs, more people are going to go to the U.S. I have so many friends who can't find jobs and leave."

As voters in Ohio, Texas, Rhode Island and Vermont prepare to go to the polls Tuesday, some workers and distributors at this 800-acre food market, one of the biggest in the world, are expressing concern about presidential candidates Hillary Clinton's and Barack Obama's threats to pull out of NAFTA unless it's renegotiated.

NAFTA is unpopular in Ohio, a key battleground state for Clinton and Obama, where thousands of manufacturing workers have lost jobs.

Several vendors at the Central de Abasto food market said NAFTA isn't perfect. Prices on many products have risen, and many corn farmers said they've been run out of business because of the influx of cheaper American-grown feed corn. But overall, they say, NAFTA has been good for the country, and they worry what changes the U.S. would seek should it return to the negotiating table with Mexico and Canada.

"People are worried," said Gerardo Peralta, 55, who sells rice, nuts and condiments. "If the U.S. tries to renegotiate, they are going to do what's best for them. That could be bad for Mexico."

Some Mexican leaders sought to downplay the candidates' statements as political rhetoric and "campaign talk."

Sen. Ricardo Garcia Cervantes said that any renegotiation of NAFTA would be based on the issues and not on the "heated statements" made by the American political candidates in hopes of gaining their party's nomination.

"In this electoral environment, one that we have to be very attentive to, we also have to be aware that many of these declarations by the Democratic candidates and Republicans are made for gaining votes," Garcia Cervantes, chairman of the Mexican Foreign Relations Commission for North America, said in a statement.

Mexico has gained because of NAFTA, according to Mexican Economy Secretary Eduardo Soto. He told a gathering last week of U.S., Canadian, and Mexican representatives that the Mexican economy has grown 51 percent because of NAFTA, that nearly 5 million jobs have been generated and that exports to the U.S. and Canada have multiplied five times.

"As representatives of the Mexican government, we do not want to insert ourselves into the U.S. political campaigns," he said. "However, we are convinced that what North America needs is more integration and not less integration. North America needs to look to the future and not return to the past."

Avocados have flourished under NAFTA, but not everyone is in favor of the trade agreement. Last month, hundreds of thousands of farmers clogged Mexico City streets with tractors to protest lifting corn tariffs under the free-trade agreement.

Corn farmers said the entry of cheap imported corn has undermined their profits, and towns are emptying because thousands of small farms have gone out of business. Many head to the U.S. illegally looking for better pay.

"It's not that we're against free trade," said Victor Suarez, the executive director of ANEC, a farmers' coalition, who helped organize the Mexico City rally. "We're in favor of free trade that is balanced — not one that is for corporations and monopolies. We want free trade that is fair for all parties involved."

(Ordonez reports for The Charlotte Observer.)